I have said it before and I’ll say it again: Dutch birthdays are weird. Sure, they’ve got those odd (albeit handy) calendars in their bathrooms to remind them of the big days, but why remember if you ain’t even the one bringing the cake! All those birthday “gefeliciteerds” are great for us (non-Dutchies) to practice our “g’s”, but the celebrations do seem to be lacking a little je ne sais quoi. The Dutch 50th birthday, however, is the exception: full of eccentricities, nonsense, and good ol’ fashion fun!


When Dutch people turn fifty they are said to be either “seeing Abraham” or “seeing Sara”. Say what?! There’s sadly no bathroom humor here (as it doesn’t relate to my grandma’s “seeing a man about a dog”) however, the connotations are equally odd.

In this case,  to “see” Sarah or Abraham is a biblical reference. The original meaning is still up for debate, but from my highly rigorous research (aka googling for precisely 2 minutes) it seems to include adultery, stoning, barren-women, seeing ghosts, aging, death, and sinning – yes, all the elements necessary for a rousing bible story!! Somewhere amidst the judgements and morals there is a rather literal reference to turning 50 years old and “seeing Abraham”. How it then made its way into the Dutch lexicon is anyone’s guess…

The Dutch clearly decided to put their own spin on the biblical tale. When Dutch people hit the big 5-0 in the Lowlands,  the birthday celebrations tended to include either a cake or pastry symbolizing the aging birthday boy or girl.

Somehow, over time (again don’t ask) the tradition evolved (as traditions should!) and that little pastry person morphed into a life-size doll in the likeness of the guest of honour! Think scarecrow-esque figures on front lawns, human paper-mâché travesties and five-meter-tall blow-up balloons of  graying women (aka Sarah) or balding men (aka Abraham).

As we all know, celebrations in the Lowlands are not complete without some snarky witty poems; such ditties, written by friends and family, often accompany the festivities. If you’re particularly lucky, those unfavourable poems might just adorn your front lawn as well!
Now before y’all start schooling me on Dutch traditions, I am highly aware that this particular one has lost some steam in recent years –-but I am hoping for its revival. These grey Dutch skies could use a bit more colour, and if that needs to come in the shape of gaudy human-like balloons, then so be it! 😉

I can say with all certainty that I won’t be spending my 50th birthday in the Lowlands. However, it is one Dutch thing I just may be tempted to bring home with me to Canada – along with my beloved bicycle and my Dutch directness, of course!

 

40 Responses

  1. Jeroen Willems

    “Somehow, over time (again don’t ask) the tradition evolved (as traditions should!)”
    I see what you did there!

    Reply
  2. baasbraal

    It comes out of the Bible where Jesus says to the farazees:” Our father Abraham has looked out to this day” and then the Farazees answer: “You are not even 50 years of age and you have seen Abraham?” So that’s why the Dutch concluded that you have seen Abraham when you reached the age of fifty and of course Sara when you are a woman…..

    Reply
  3. Marieke

    There is new growing tradition here: If you celebrate your 25th birthday, your friends put the same kind of Abraham/Sara dolls in your garden but severed in half.

    Reply
    • Ellebelle

      I was going to mention the same thing, the “Halve Abraham” and “Halve Sara” are a big thing in my region. The banners are even more snarky in my opinion, mostly referring to extremely painful moments and (the lack of) sexlife of the victim. Also common in our town: pasting badly printed pieces of paper with embarrassing pictures of them all over the neighbourhood. Gotta love the dutch!

      Reply
    • Angela

      I think it is nice to congratulate the family. It is a celebration of life for everyone who loves the person too.

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      • Amit

        Cos they(the family) has put up with you for another year!

    • Klaas

      we don’t congratulate the whole family only family present at the moment, and we offer condolences to the family when somebody of the family passes away. Is that weird ?

      Reply
      • Angela

        Klaas,
        I can not speak for all cultures but I can state for mine, and for a few others I have lived in it is only not common to congratulate the family on birthdays. For deaths it is common and expected to always send and or give condolences to family. but that is a gesture of support and sympathy and nothing in compared to celebration of birthdays. I find it very a very nice gesture when the Dutch congratulate me on a birthday of my children etc. Even when strangers notice it is a birthday of my children they congratulate me.

      • Frederick

        Yeah. And you guys across the pond (on the Western side, that is) persist in referring to the toilet, wc, loo, as the’bathroom’. What do you call the proper bathroom?
        Birthday calendar in my bathroom? No way, occassionally it gets too moist in there!

    • Mia Pearson

      The birthday of a family member is a cause for celebration for the entire family in Holland. And so it should be everywhere!

      Reply
    • Maria Kain

      Why not?? Everybody is happy that you are a year older!!

      Reply
  4. Johanna

    This was not a tradition when I was growing up in the Netherlands during the 50s.
    When did it start?

    Reply
  5. Angela

    told the family no way no how will you do this to me on my 50!

    Reply
  6. JW

    I turned 50 last year.
    I thought I had kept it hidden, but when I stood in the elevator at my work everywhere I looked posters of me as a baby where hung up. At my desk a real size Sarah puppet whas sitting there. I work in an interanational firm with a lot of expats, so most of them didn’t have an idea what was going on. When I went home in the evening my family and friends made a big puppet in front of the house.
    I wasn’t amused on that day, but now I see the fun of it.
    It’s nice that family, friends and colleges take the time to celebrate this special birthday. I think it’s a nice tradition.

    Reply
    • Bertus

      I agree, I was told when you turn 50 that now you will know where Abraham gets the mustard, and we get a large speculaas pop.

      Reply
  7. Steve

    I turned 50 while living in the Netherlands and had the full size doll brought out at work. Great fun and made for a very different birthday. Of course (l

    Reply
  8. Steve

    To finish off-of course living in Limburg I supplied the vlaai

    Reply
  9. Dorothy

    My potentially future mother-in-law got a real-life Sara on her birthday. A friend (she doesn’t know who) dressed up complete with a mask covering her whole face, delivered and served breakfast, sat and waited until it was consumed, cleared everything away and left all without ever uttering a sound! I think it’s a pretty cool tradition.

    Reply
  10. Trijntje Bassett

    It’s ok,I get it,when there is a birthday in the family ,it’s everyone,s birthday,so let’s party,I am all fore it.
    Lang zal ze leven in de Gloria .

    Reply
  11. Heleen

    Don’t forget the other tradition… Giving people mustard when they turn 50, because now ‘they know where you get the mustard!”….. Probably something from the bible too.

    Reply
    • Mas

      No biblical reference and nothing to do with mustard either, just a way of saying that now you’ve reached age 50, you know how life works, you are a true adult. That’s the best way to describe it I guess.

      Reply
  12. Pete

    When you celebrate your 50th. birthday “you know where Abraham gets the mustard”, meaning you know how things in life work and have experience.
    For some of the young female coworkers at the office apparently that suddenly seems very attractive. You may get a completely new “second chance” to do things you would regret on your death bed of not having done.
    Ahem!

    Reply
  13. Yogi Beer

    As far as I know (and I was raised in The Netherlands) this tradition is mainly upheld by the Catholics, not so much the Protestants.

    Reply
    • Willem

      Yogi Bear, er wordt geen onderscheid gemaakt tussen geloven. Of je nu katholiek bent of protestant, als je 50 wordt krijg je een Abraham of een Sara.

      Reply
  14. Johan D. Kroon Constant

    I always thought I wouldn´t be celebrating my 50th birthday, however, after some scary moments within the family, I thought to myself, why not celebrate the good moments in life. After all, we always appear to focus on bad things, you only have to watch the outpour of daily news. So, if there ís a reason to celebrate, JUST DÓ IT…!!! And I was very touched to discover a life-size Abraham at my front-door, plus a custom-baked 50-th Birthday cake, at the stroke of midnight of the day I turned 50, all compliments of my family. CELEBRATE LIFE AND SHARE THE GOOD MOMENTS…..!!!

    Reply
  15. CW

    Doesn’t anybody here know the tradition of the edible Sara or Abraham made of speculaas (or probably also other cake)? You could order them at the bakery. Or make them yourself, of course.

    Reply
  16. Christie

    The life-sized doll came to me as a shock when my boyfriend’s dad had his 50th birthday. I don’t understand why they had this tradition if you say its about bibley stuff. The whole family are atheists!!

    Reply
  17. Willie

    En een spreekwoord is ook: nu weet Abraham waar hij de mosterd kan vinden. Google translate: And a proverb is: Abraham now know where to find the mustard. – De eerste kennismaking met deze gewoonte was toen ik naar Noord-Holland was verhuisd. Op een dag fietste ik naar mijn werk, het was winter en nog donker, en plotseling zag ik een man op een stoel aan het eind van de voortuin bij buren verderop; ik schrok me een ongeluk, het leek net echt. Later heb ik dat veel keren gezien zowel Sarah als Abraham en waar ik woonde werd er ook getoeterd door autobestuurders en gebeld door fietsers en bromfietsers. Zelf kom ik uit Zuid-Holland en wij kenden dat gebruik niet. Google translate: The first encounter was with this habit when I was moved to North-Holland. One day I cycled to work, it was winter and dark, and suddenly I saw a man on a chair on the end at the front yard with neighbors down; I was scared of an accident, it seemed so real. Later I noticed that many times both Sarah and Abraham and where I lived there was honking by motorists and called by cyclists and moped riders. I come from South-Holland and we knew it not use.

    Reply

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